Global Feminist Profiles highlights feminist leaders all over the world who are creating change and empowering their countrywomen to demand equality. GFPs run on the third Monday of each month. This month’s featured activist is Audacia Ray, a sexuality rights and new media activist based in New York City.
Feminism and sex work have long had a turbulent relationship. Some feminists argue that sex work exploits women and the practice should be stopped, while others believe that the industry should be legalized and regulated to make it safer for those who chose to enter it. For decades, however, the voices of sex workers themselves were largely ignored in this debate. Not until the ’70s were sex workers in America and Europe able to make themselves heard on a large scale by organizing activist groups.
Today, Audacia Ray is one prominent activist working to help sex workers speak out using new media tools. She writes about sex work for several blogs, is a co-founder of the advocacy organization Sex Work Awareness, and works as the International Women’s Health Coalition’s Program Officer for Online Communications and Campaigns. Oh yeah, and she is also an adjunct professor of Human Sexuality at Rutgers University and author of the 2007 book Naked on the Internet: Hookups, Downloads, and Cashing in on Internet Sexploration.
I had the opportunity to interview Ray by phone, and I learned that her amazing activist pursuits are driven by her belief in that familiar feminist catchphrase, “the personal is political.” Ray began her first major foray into new media and sex work advocacy in 2004, when she started a blog called Waking Vixen. At the time Ray was supporting herself through sex work while pursuing an MA in American Studies at Colombia University, and she began blogging about her experiences in an attempt to connect with others in the sex industry. About a year later, Ray had a “lightbulb moment” that truly sparked her activist career when she read a call for submissions to $pread magazine, a publication by and for sex workers. Inspired to take her voice beyond her blog, Ray joined the magazine staff and worked there for three years as a writer and then as Executive Editor.
“A prevailing theme of my work has been that telling stories is powerful; it’s the foundation of activism,” Ray says. During her tenure at $pread, Ray became increasingly interested in how women use technology to express their sexuality through blogging, online dating, online porn, and other activities—despite the common sentiment that the internet is a “man’s world.” Ray tackled this subject in Naked on the Internet. In an interview with Ray, journalist Regina Lynn at Wired magazine described the book as giving “women a collective voice, validating our experiences and exposing the whole range of how women—real women, of various ages and backgrounds and moral codes—are finding their sexual power online.”
Meanwhile, Ray and three other $pread magazine staffers created a new project to help sex workers develop their own voices. They founded the nonprofit organization Sex Work Awareness with two main goals: to educate the general public about the sex industry, and to help sex workers learn how to interact with the mainstream media. To achieve these goals the group developed a training curriculum called Speak Up, which teaches current and former sex workers skills including how to handle interview requests, write op-ed pieces, and start their own blog. Providing sex workers with more tools for communication is vital, Ray says, in order to combat misconceptions about the industry in a media culture that focuses on stereotypes and scandal. “We need people with personal experience to speak for themselves,” Ray explains, because those people are often the most effective activists.
Ray’s efforts to help sex workers speak for themselves is not limited to the US. One of her most recent projects at the International Women’s Health Coalition took her to India to provide media training to sex workers. Along with Khushbu Srivastava, IWHC’s Program Officer of Asia, Ray spent two weeks in the Maharashtra State collaborating with SANGRAM, an activist organization working in part to empower sex workers. The group asked IWHC for help in gaining international exposure using English language media. One product of the organizations’ collaboration is this short video, where sex workers describe their efforts to educate the larger community about HIV prevention and treatment. As Ray states in the video, the workers are fighting the stigma surrounding their work and proving that “sex workers are not agents of disease, they are agents of change.”
Creating more cross-issue advocacy work such as the SANGRAM project is one of Ray’s next goals in her career. “It’s difficult for sex work advocates to link with reproductive health advocates or LGBT rights activists, but all those issues are a matter of one’s bodily choice,” she says. As one of her new efforts to work across these issues, Ray recently began writing for the reproductive rights blog RH Reality Check. Here you can read Ray’s great account of the SANGRAM project, where she also outlines her opinion on the age-old debate of how feminists should respond to sex work:
Why is it that there has been a shift in how advocates describe those who experience gender-based violence from “victim” to “survivor,” but when speaking of people in the sex industry, the word “victim” has persisted? Why is it that US-funded HIV prevention programs require a denunciation of sex work by organizations best poised to reach sex workers with life-saving information and services? Why is it that while in other social justice movements, the voices of the people most affected are at the forefront, yet some feminists are quick to leap into conversations about sex work and trafficking to speak for the affected communities?
The basic answer to these questions is that many people regard the sex industry as something that must be halted, one that at its core perpetuates violence against the people who work in it, a business from which no good can come. I won’t argue that the sex industry is a well-functioning industry that respects the rights of all its workers, or that most sex workers feel safe and fulfilled in their jobs. However, there are a variety of contributing factors that might keep a sex worker in the business, even if the worker has the choice to leave it for other work.
SANGRAM works to prioritize the voices of sex workers themselves, so that sex workers can articulate what they need to be safe, healthy, and able to provide for themselves and their families. Sometimes this includes an exit strategy, but often the sex workers’ circumstances and the economic and social climate in which they live make exit from the sex industry unrealistic.
All in all, Ray hopes her work will help combat the widespread stigma—even among the feminist community—that sex workers are “nonpersons.” To learn more about Ray’s activism and numerous other past and present projects, visit her website. Applications for the next Speak Up training session with Sex Work Awareness are due February 17. Also check out IWHC’s Young Visionaries contest, open to activists between the ages of 18 and 30 who want to create a project to address women’s rights, sexuality rights, or reproductive health.